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“There is nothing on earth that God loves more than His slave, hands raised helplessly in supplication, weeping, and pleading.” (Signs on the Horizons)
Towards the end of November 2014, I was sent for a week long work assignment to Dubai. Whilst I was out there, I had a wonderful meeting with Michael Sugich (whose Muslim name is Haroon), author of the beautifully written book: Signs on the Horizons. Sidi Haroon came to the UK in May 2014 and conducted a book reading at Rumi’s Cave. As much as I wanted to attend that event and meet Sidi Haroon, I was unable to go because of work (it was quite an intense period at work and I could not make it to the event in time). Six months down the line, not only did I get to meet Sidi Haroon, but I also was fortunate to be able to spend a couple of hours with him, talking and discussing his book, and simply listening to the many wonderful stories he had to share. It’s amazing how work was the reason I could not attend his event in London, but then, work was also the reason I was out in Dubai and had the meeting with Sidi Haroon. Allah plans beautifully! For those who have not read the book: Signs on the Horizons is a memoir written by Michael Sugich (Sidi Haroon) about his spiritual journey of finding his spiritual guide, meeting and interacting with men who have transcended the ordinary and achieved stations of spirituality and enlightenment. I won’t reveal details about the book, but all I can say is that it is one of those books that you must all own and read at least once in your lifetime because it is full of stories that are inspiring and REAL. The interview below has been checked and approved by Sidi Haroon, and I am publishing this after his consent. If you have a chance of meeting him, please make sure you do! —- Sidra: What inspired you to write the book? Haroon: I started writing these stories down over a period of years because I was afraid I was going to forget the details as the years went by. And I began to write them mainly for my children because, while the older children remember some of these great people (who are mentioned in the book), but the younger ones had no connection with them. That was initially the motivation for writing these stories down– basically just to preserve the memories. Shems Friedlander, a very close friend of mine, was publishing a journal on Sufism and he asked me if I would contribute something, and I had one of these stories to share. The story was on Moulay Abu Qassim as the story had a big impact on me when I was young. I had a story already written, I sent it to Shems, and he included it in his journal. What surprised me was the reaction. People would say: “You really met these people?” “These people really exist?” The reaction from people started to make me think that it would be useful for a wider audience, there seems to be a longing for this sort of thing. The response to the book has validated that idea because I have come to learn that many Muslims have become disconnected from these kind of people (those mentioned in the book). They exist, but they have receded. When Sidi Abdul Adheem (Peter) Sanders and I were young, we would be in a room where you might have 50 Awliya (Friends of God)! This is very hard to find anymore. It’s not because they don’t exist, but they’ve withdrawn to a certain extent because people have lost interest in spirituality. Also, I have spent the last 20 years writing for other people, and I felt I wanted to write something that had meaning for me. My daughter was studying in an art school in Paris in 2009. She would go off to school in the mornings and I would spend the whole day writing and loved it because I got to think about these people, it was a wonderful experience, and I would like to do more of it. Sidra: A lot of your book covers personal experiences, in fact all of it is based on your personal interactions with these great people. Many people shy away from writing and sharing these kind of experiences where as you have been very open. How comfortable did you feel about writing and sharing such intimate and personal experiences? Michael: I wrote about things I felt I could write about. I am an old man now (laughs), so something that I might not have written 25 or 30 years ago, because it’s something in the distant past (most of the stories are recounted from when I was so young), there was less to reveal in a spiritual way back then. Sidra: What was the hardest part about writing the book? Haroon: I would not say that writing the book was hard. However, what was difficult was that I had to be careful, true and accurate to the memory and try not to embellish things or make up things for the purpose of impact and literary effect, which can be a temptation. I had to be very careful as this was going to be something before Allah. Once the first draft of the book was done, I spoke to a lot of friends and asked them to share some of their memories to make sure I didn’t get it wrong. What I found out though was that most of my friends have a worse memory than I do! (laughs). I did not get as much detail back from my friends as much as I thought I would. An example of this is as follows. There is a chapter in the book called “All Night Long”, and it’s about a wonderful Naqshbandi Shaykh, Sufi Abdullah (who is based in Birmingham, UK). I wrote the story, and it was about a night of Dhikr we had. It was an amazing night, but what I completely forgot, and my friend Abu Qassim Spiker (who was there that night reminded me, saying, “Don’t you remember Sufi Abdullah was wearing Christmas lights around his neck!” (laughs). If I do another version of the book, I will add that in because it was so bizarre and funny, and it reminds us that people are human. Sufi Abdullah is a great man and I was able to see him recently, he is old and frail now, and it was a poignant and beautiful meeting with him. Also, when we were putting together the book, Shems insisted that each chapter ends with a quote or epigraph. That was the hardest part and took me longer than actually writing the book!
Moulay Hashem said, “It is through the prayer on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ , and love of the Prophet that you receive knowledge and an Opening.” He admonished us to balance the invocation of the Great Name (Allah) with Prayer on the Prophet ﷺ .” The Name of God is hot,” he said. “The Prayer on the Prophet cools the heart.” (Signs on the Horizons)
Sidra: What was the best part of writing the book? Haroon: The best part was to be able to spend a lot of time thinking about these great people. I loved it. I loved thinking about them. Next to that, the best part has been meeting people who have read the book, who have come to the readings, it’s been a wonderful experience. It has given me a lot of opportunity; there are a lot of wonderful young people out there. People need to understand that my generation dropped out: Peter Sanders, Yusuf Islam, Richard Thompson, Abdul Latif Whiteman, etc, most of us dropped out and left everything we were doing because there was no social context; there were no communities. The communities that existed forty years ago were immigrant communities with dysfunctional families, but now it’s completely changed. Your generation have a lot of young people who are vibrant, intelligent, active, who are Muslims but also living in mainstream society, working and achieving. This wasn’t the case back then so it’s so encouraging to see. As troubled as young people seem to be sometimes, it’s encouraging to me to see how much faith young people have. There is so much publicity about extremists and fanatics, but there are many more young people who have their heads in the right place and are decent and productive. Sidra: Your book has been well received. How does that make you feel? Haroon: It’s great. I said to Shems Friedlander that if one person is moved by the book or the book has meaning for just one person, then that would make the effort worth it. However, it has been thousands of people who have appreciated and taken the book to heart. It’s gratifying, I am truly grateful for that.
One member of our group had been struggling on the Path. He asked the Saint (Sidi Mohamed Al- Sahrawi), “What do you do if you perform remembrance of God for year after year but it never reaches the heart?”. He replied, “You keep on invoking God because you never know when your invocation will take hold of the heart. Sometimes the effects of remembrance cannot be felt until the moment before you die. Have patience. Persist. Never give up.” (Signs on the Horizons)
Sidra: In your opinion, do you think every soul needs to go out in search of a teacher or spiritual master? Haroon: I am not really qualified to answer something like that. I think every soul longs for God and Knowledge and wants to tread this path, and should find someone whom is alive to take the path with. But should every simple human being do it? Maybe, but they don’t. Sidra: What would your advice be to the younger generation who are struggling to find that balance of seeking God and living this worldly life? How do we find that balance? Haroon: Firstly, we tend to romanticise the past thinking the past was so perfect and if we were living in another time, everything would have been different. The fact of the matter is that people have always struggled with this, struggled to find a balance of being in the world and heading into the next world, and being distracted by the world. The first thing our society exalts is the accumulation of wealth and fame. I am not sure that was as intense in earlier times as it is now. Someone nowadays can become famous for no reason. We definitely live on a much higher level than our ancestors lived in terms of greater comfort. But are we closer to God? I don’t know. I doubt it. The most important thing young people have to remember is that: you are going to die. The most insane thing in existence is the denial of death, because its the only thing that is certain. My friend Faarid Gouverneur once said to me “There are three certainties: Now, Death, God”. You are not going to live forever, and you won’t be able to retain things forever. Imam al-Ghazali said: ‘Love whatever you like but you will lose it. Live as long as you like but you will die’. And this is the reality. But in this age people think that it is being morbid. It is not morbid, and it’s real and a relief. Why do you want to keep struggling along as a donkey in this life when there is the next life? If you don’t believe in a next life, then I believe you are in trouble. That’s why we remember God. My advice to young people is to remember God standing, sitting and reclining. Moulay Abdul Salam ibn Mashish said, ‘There is nothing acceptable to Allah except DhikrAllah’. What does this mean? It means that if you are doing Salah and you are not remembering Allah, then your Salah is useless. If you are fasting and not remembering Allah then your fasting is useless. If you are giving Zakat and you are not remembering Allah, then your Zakat is useless. If you are struggling for the sake of Allah and you are not remembering Allah then your struggling is useless. Everything is remembrance and this is what absolutely transforms the soul. So this is what young people need to embrace. Everyone makes the way and path harder than it is. Part of the reason I wrote the book is, if you read the existing text on the Awliya, especially in English, you read someone (I am making this example up) who prayed and fasted all the time for 40 years, which seems like an extreme thing and then has an incredible opening. What you don’t read about is all the hundreds and thousands of men and women who had tremendous spiritual benefits from just being ordinary people and remembering Allah. With regards to young people, what I have seen is a lack of confidence. This is because of the inordinate influence of Salafis who see everything in black and white terms. For example, if you sin, you will go to hell, that is what is taught to the youngsters, but Allah is Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem. He is the Most Forgiving, and His Mercy precedes His wrath. My teacher Sayyid Abdullah said that if you read the Qur’an carefully, you will see that most people go to heaven. I found that Muslims feel insecure and they feel they are sinners. Of course we are sinners, but the Rasul ﷺ said that if you did not sin, Allah would destroy you and replace you with the people who did sin so they can make tawba (repentance) and ask for forgiveness. That is the transaction: tawba and istighfar, that is what it is all about. What is the sin of a Wali of Allah? Forgetting Allah for a split second. That is what his sin would be in this world. In our world today, remembering Allah for a split second is a great thing! We are in that cycle where we make a mistake, we correct ourselves. We make a mistake and correct ourselves. And so on until we are finally purified. We live in an instant age! We want instant Nirvana, everything has to happen tomorrow. You have these insane weekend groups, enlightenment weekends and after one weekend, you are supposed to have changed! People spend 30,40, 50 years on the path, day in and day out doing the same thing. This is what it is all about, not instant results. Yes, some people who are very pure and have sudden openings when they are very young, however these people are exceptional. My teacher Sayyid Umar used to say “The later the better”. By this he meant that later in your life you have maturity and can handle deep spiritual openings.
“God is so immensely generous that He gives His servants everything that they ask for, even if only at the moment of death” (Signs on the Horizons)
Sidra: Your book does not cover or mention any female Saints. I am curious whether you met any? Haroon: No, mainly because of conventional Muslim societies. Men do not meet women. I have met 1-2 women who are Saliheen, but I did not mention them in the book because it would have imbalanced it (i.e more men featured than women). Sidra: As a writer, what would your advice be for aspiring writers? Haroon: Write every day and find a way to do that. Read a lot. If you are writing on Islamic subjects then be humble and refer to people who know more than you. One of the worst things that has happened in modern times is you have a lot of ignorant people writing about Islam and we have to be very careful about that. However, in terms of pure technique, write and re-write. Good writing is re-writing. Basically good writing is part of good thinking. My advice is keep at it. If you don’t have any talent for writing, then don’t do it! Find something else you have a talent for. But if you do have a talent for writing then refine that and get better and better at it, love language. Language is a beautiful thing which separates us from animals. We are able to express ourselves. Therefore it’s a responsibility if you have a gift for writing. One of the reasons I wrote the book is I felt the need to use what small talent I have and do something that has some meaning, rather than just do it. John Steinbeck, when he was young, wrote two huge novels that were never sold. Then he wrote a book called “Tortilla Flat” which was a success. He then wrote “Cannery Row”, which was a huge success, and then he wrote “Grapes of Wrath” which was his masterpiece and while he was writing it he knew that it was going to be a masterpiece. Steinbeck wrote to his friend saying that ‘it was all those millions of words before’. Sidra: When can we expect your next book and what will it be about? Haroon: I am working on 3-5 books at the moment, it’s not a good thing! I’m working on a book on extremism, another on the turning of the heart (tawba), a third is a kind of sequel to Signs on the Horizons. We have a project pending on Morocco. It will take me a while, but something may come. The answer is, I don’t know!
“I told him with some pride that three people had just converted to Islam with me. He smiled sweetly and said, “Why not three hundred?” His response left me deflated. Was he teaching me humility? Was he teaching me not to be satisfied with a small achievement but to aspire to greater things? I expected a pat on the back and felt that my efforts had been dismissed by this great man. In retrospect, it occurred to me as I was setting down these memories decades later that one of the three souls who had converted to Islam was an intense and brilliant 18 year old former theological student who subsequently learned Arabic, travelled the world in search of knowledge, sitting with many of the great men of the Way and emerged as one of the most influential Muslim thinkers and orators in the West, reaching millions and guiding thousands on the path of Islam. He is known today as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. In balance I would say he counts for three hundred, at the very least. Perhaps Shaykh Al- Azhar understood this with the eye of insight” (Signs on the Horizons)
—– The book is available to buy from Amazon. You can also follow the Signs on the Horizons Facebook Page. Please keep Sidi Haroon and his family in your prayers! Special thanks to my dear brother and friend “The Conscious Muslim” for his help and support in checking this blog post for me before I published it- please recite a prayer for him too!